To say nothing of the dog: on proofreading

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I’m almost finished with the first-pass page proofs for The Endless Forest, and I hope to hand it over to FedEx late today or early tomorrow. As I am at the hair-pulling stage, I’m taking a break to tell you about this process and how I handle it. Or don’t.

I believe I can pinpoint the very moment when my proofreading phobia started.  Writing a dissertation is never easy and everybody who has ever written one will have horror stories to tell.  I think those of us who defended more than twenty years ago, when word processing was in its very quirky infancy, probably have more horror stories than more recent doctoral students. Usually, though, the horror stories don’t happen after the fact.

It was the day after I defended my doctoral dissertation. A beautiful late spring day, and I was free. FREE.  I was so full of energy, I was almost floating. Three years of hard work in which I often doubted that I could ever finish — much less defend  — my dissertation, but I had done both. I can still recall that feeling. It ranks up there with the first sight of the Girlchild’s little new-babies-look-like-monkies face, and seeing the Mathematician down there at the end of the aisle smiling at me, and getting the first copy of the first published novel delivered. It’s that good.

Then the phone rang, and I made a mistake. I answered it.

On the other end was a very earnest librarian from Princeton’s library, who was holding a copy of my newly minted dissertation in his hands.

Librarian: Dr Lippi, I have a number of questions regarding your dissertation.

Me: Huh?

Librarian: Before I can add it to the library’s collection there are number of … infelicities that need to be addressed.

I remember my gut rising into my throat, which explains why my voice came out like Minnie Mouse on steroids.

Me: I defended it yesterday. I’m done.

Librarian: I’m afraid not. Do you have a copy so you can follow along as I ask my questions?


Librarian: Dr. Lippi?

What I wanted to say: But you don’t understand, I swore last night that I would never, ever, open my dissertation again. In fact, my plans for today include embalming my copy in a barrel of wet concrete. In short: no, I don’t have a copy to follow along, and no force on earth is going to compel me to go get one.

Me: Just go ahead.

Librarian: On page 223, chart 27a is not titled.  And on 275, chart 55 is titled ‘Distribution of Marked Phonemes by Generation’ but in the index, the title is given as ‘Distribution of Marked Phoneme by Generation.’

I think I went into shock at that point. I simply stood there listening as he droned on with his list of missing commas, reversed index numbers, and other details I did not care about. Not one bit. A long time later  I realized he was waiting for some kind of reply.

Me: I’m sorry, I didn’t get that last bit.

Librarian: These problems will have to be corrected before your dissertation can be officially logged.


Librarian: Dr. Lippi?


Librarian: If I might make a suggestion, I could make these corrections for you —

Me: You could? Really? Oh, bless you. Bless you. Please go ahead and change things as you see fit. No need to run things past me, no sirree.

And I hung up.

Ever since that day, I cringe when a proofreader makes him or herself heard. Which happens a lot while you’re doing the first-pass reading of a manuscript. Don’t get me wrong, the proofreader is crucial at this point because I don’t see half the small things she catches, and those things do need to be caught. For the most part there will be a couple of marks on a page — a comma added or a semi-colon changed to a period, for example. More serious and important are the small errors in continuity, so the proofreader will write “Do you mean Nathaniel here instead of Daniel?” And 99% of the time she’s right.

But every once in a while I flip over a page and see a long paragraph in the margin in dark blue ink, and my heart leaps into my throat. The proofreader has found a major problem in logic or a large inconsistency in backstory, and attached to those observations is a list of pages on which the fact in question has come up and has to be compared to the current page, so that corrections can be made all around.

Today I’ve run into more than the usual number of those marginal blocks, which explains why my heartbeat is galloping along and my lip is bleeding where I’ve been chewing on it. I think it was especially bad today because of the dog.

There is a dog in this story, as you probably would have guessed if you’ve read any of my stuff.

Here’s the problem: the dog is mentioned and described as a puppy, belonging to a young couple. From its first appearance, the proofreader is obsessed — obsesssed, I tell you — with this dog. Wherever the couple shows up, there must the dog be also or the proofreader is unhappy. I stopped counting the ‘where’s the dog?’ queries after ten or so. By that time I was ready to slash right to the heart of the problem and instruct her to take out every reference to a dog, anywhere. Everywhere. In everything I’ve ever written. Please, just don’t ask me about the dog anymore. And you know how much I love dogs, so things have to be pretty dire around here just now.

So now I  have to go back to proofreading. Light a candle, would you? I need all the help I can get.


Creative Commons License photo credit: Valentin.Ottone

13 Replies to “To say nothing of the dog: on proofreading”

  1. Not my own horror story. I was helping a friend become more computer literate. He didn’t even understand what a file was. Didn’t understand backups. He was working on his dissertation about aluminum in plant cultivars. Lots of numbers, tables, statistics. The phone rings. “Help. Now. Come here. NOW!!!!!” So I did. He’d lost 3 CHAPTERS of his dissertation. No backup. And even I couldn’t get it back. He didn’t make that mistake again.

    Candles lit.

  2. In my MA thesis I mentioned the Australian writer Nevil Shute. Except that I had spelled his name Neville, because that’s the way it is usually spelled. I had checked and doublechecked the publication dates and titles of dozens of books, the names of dozens of authors, etc… I almost certainly checked how Shute’s surname was spelled. But I never checked whether Nevil Shute spells his first name differently from all the other Nevilles out there.

    On the day I handed in the thesis, I decided to indulge myself in the used book shop on the university campus. After all, I was free, finally free. And there, on the shelves of the used book shop I saw it. A Town Called Alice by Nevil Shute. The resulting scream could be heard all over the campus.

    I dashed back to the MA office (and I hated going to the MA office) and told the lady I needed all four copies of my thesis back right now. She told me she couldn’t return them once they’d been filed. I told her, “But you don’t understand. There’s a mistake in the thesis.” She finally relented (probably because she was sick of people having breakdowns in her office – I know I wasn’t the only one) and told me that since I was still a few days short of the time limit, she would hold on to the copies and not pass them on to the professors. If I brought her new copies within the time limit, I could have the old ones back. So I went home, corrected the misspelled name, printed out all four required copies again to the very odd looks of the people in the office where I worked part time (“But didn’t you already do that?” – “Well, there’s been a problem and now I have to do it again”), had them bound again and took the corrected copies to the MA office and got my old ones back.

    Afterwards, whenever someone asked me if they could have a copy of my MA thesis (not that it happened very often, only my parents and aunt and uncle desperately wanted a copy), I told them, “Well, I do have some extra copies lying around, but they’re the ones with the mistake.” – “What mistake?” – “Well, I spelled Nevil Shute’s name wrong on page 7.” – “Who’s Nevil Shute?”

    I’m not looking forward to having to go through all that again with my PhD thesis.

    Anyway, good luck with the proofreading.

  3. I sympathise greatly. I spent quite a bit of yesterday and today procrastinating because I really, really didn’t want to proof-read an essay I’ve been working on. Eventually, though, I did sit down and get on with it. Then I did the same again thing today and found more tiny little errors. And then I did it again and found a few more. I refuse to look at it again, and I’m trying very hard not to listen to the little voice in my head which is chanting “if you’ve found things that need changing every time you’ve re-read that essay, doesn’t that suggest that if you re-read it a fourth time you might pick up something else?”

    I think those of us who defended more than twenty years ago, when word processing was in its very quirky infancy, probably have more horror stories that more recent doctoral students.

    You’re probably right about that. I don’t have any bad stories to tell about proofreading my thesis, but I did have to read it many times after the viva because it needed to be revised before it could be published as a book.

  4. Your dissertation story cracked me up (hopefully you are far enough away from that angst that you now find it funny, too). I can’t imagine doing a disseratation or any major written work without a wordprocessor. And I can’t imagine a librarian really reading through a dissertation that carefully. I sent the obligatory copy of mine to the school library after I defended, but fully expect it has sat wrapped in the printer’s plastic wrap for the past 11 years! I was obsessed with back up copies when I did mine and had disks hidden throughout my apartment, and some in my desk at work just in case my apartment caught on fire. In fact I just had to go check, still have a disc stashed in my jewelry box, surely in a format that no computer can read anymore, but safe nonetheless!

    I also dislike proofreading… no matter how much I do it, there always seems to be something that slips through. For your dog obsessed proofreader, remind her/him that lots of people are securely enough attached to their dogs, and vice versa, that they are able to leave said dogs at home and not tote them around mercilessly (my own pet peeve–people who tote around coddled lap dogs with bows in their hair and rhinestone collars, then look at me funny when their dog snarls at my child).

  5. Hoping you’re done or nearly so by now, Rosina. Sending good vibes and prayers (’cause that’s what I do) for everything to come together smoothly. Thanks for sharing your dissertation story. Yours and the other stories it prompted have me laughing this morning.

  6. I’m embarrassed to confess that I still haven’t submitted the corrected version of my Honours thesis to my university, 14 years later – I need to retype the whole thing and recopy all the maps, etc, but I have been putting it off. I didn’t haven’t a printer when I did it, I had to print out different chapters on departmental printers as they became available, it took me a whole day to print out five chapters! Candles lit and and all good thoughts being sent your way.

  7. Oh my goodness. Really too funny. Of all the things to obsess over. Wouldn’t have guessed a pet.

  8. I’m intrigued now about this dog and wonder whether it will be in the final cut.

  9. I can’t wait to get the book in my hands, and then laugh and laugh whenever the dog shows up. (If he or she makes the final cut!)

  10. Reading this the thought that came to my mind was that I would not want to be a book editor. I doubt that they are paid enough for noticing all of those incongruities.

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